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Geena Davis's Mission: Tackling Gender Bias On Screen—and Off

Washington, DC

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December 12, 2019

WHEN GEENA DAVIS WAS NOMINATED FOR BEST ACTRESS in 1991 for her role as Thelma in the ground-breaking female-buddies road film “Thelma & Louise,” she was sure it would mark a turning point for women in Hollywood.

"All the headlines were, ‘This is going to change everything.’ There are going to be so many more movies with female stars about women’s issues, and I’m like, ‘Hot dog, can’t wait. Go ahead.’ And then, nothing,” recalled Davis, in conversation with Meredith Levien, Chief Operating Officer of The New York Times Company, at Merrill’s #WomenInvested speaker event last December.


The slow rate of progress in gender equality that followed, on and off screen, inspired Davis to found the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2004. Its mission: reducing harmful stereotypes and advocating for more gender-balanced on-screen portrayals. Last year she was awarded an honorary Oscar for her work fighting gender bias in films and TV.


“Anything that you show on screen will have an impact in real life,” explained the actor and activist, pointing to the Institute’s motto: If she can see it, she can be it. “We don't have enough real-life role models for people to say, ‘Wow, I see a lot of examples of women being leaders or CEO's or whatever.’ We must have them in fiction if we want to create change.” 


In their wide-ranging conversation, Davis and Levien talked about pay equity, ageism, entrepreneurship and where the equality movement might go from here, among many other topics. Reflecting on progress in her industry, the Academy-Award winner (Davis won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in 1988’s “The Accidental Tourist”) was happy to report that—29 years after “Thelma and Louise”—films starring women are more profitable than those starring men.1 Watch the videos below for highlights. 


What’s Next for the Equality Movement?

“I feel like this could be a big tipping point,” actor and activist Geena Davis said, noting the progress made by Times Up, Me Too and other movements helping to create greater equality for women. “It will definitely be ranked among the times when we’ve made big advancements.” But there’s more to be done to establish equality for all.


Transcript of Video

Moving the Needle on Pay

Despite a lot of attention focused on pay, male actors are still being paid substantially more than women, noted Meredith Levien, Chief Operating Officer of The New York Times Company. “The fact that pay inequality is improving at a glacial pace across the different sectors of society—and especially for women of color—is horrifying,” noted Academy Award-winner Geena Davis. “I remain hopeful, but it’s a really stubborn problem.” 


Transcript of Video

Why Equalize?

There’s solid financial incentive to promote better gender balance in films—as in life, said actor Geena Davis, making the case she frequently makes in her role as founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.  “In 2018, films starring women made 38% more at the box office.1 That’s your imperative right there.”



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